The Evolution of Psyche and Society

(Part 1)
By Lloyd deMause

"The search for meaning is the
search for expression of one’s real self."

---James F. Masterson

Since the further back in history one goes the lower the level of childrearing, it follows that children in the past grew up in houses of horrors that were like those of dissociated personalities of today. Psychiatric studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between elevated levels of dissociative symptoms—separate alters, depersonalization, derealization—and the amount of early physical, sexual and emotional abuse.1 That the average person before the modern period walked streets full of spirits, demons, gods and other alters is evidence of the dissociation that resulted from their routine abuse and neglect as children. Historical evolution of the psyche, therefore, is the slow, uneven process of integrating fragmented selves into the unified self that is the goal of modern upbringing.2

Biological evolution stores traits in genes that are passed down to subsequent generations with their modifications intact; a chimp has all the genes necessary to make another chimp. But the self of the human psyche must evolve anew each generation. Contemporary newborns begin with the same psyche as prehistoric newborns; it is only better childrearing that allows them to achieve a more unified self. That dissociated selves were an everyday part of life in antiquity and the Middle Ages is a much-denied fact of historians, just as anthropologists deny that their subjects are dissociated personalities who live in an animistic world full of alters inhabiting animals, objects and dead ancestors. Thus both personal history and human history are products of a search for a real self, a search for meaning in life, an integration of separate brain networks, a development of more adaptive real selves, with the unified self being a late historical achievement of only a few.


Most people even today have only achieved a partial integration of the "relatively independent subselves" that recent studies show they begin constructing as infants.3

The most thorough recent study of dissociation using a sophisticated interview technique finds that "14 percent of the general public experience ‘substantial’ dissociative symptoms"4 and most of the rest of us experience lesser dissociative symptoms when triggered by situations similar to the original abuse. This may seem excessive, until one remembers that perhaps half of the adults today were sexually abused as children, that most of us were physically and emotionally abused to some extent and that helping mode parenting which respects the growth and individuation of children is everywhere still rare.

We may be surprised to discover that people in the past had their demon alters exorcised or had conversations with their various inner souls, but even today religious spirit possessions are not uncommon—a third of Americans say they have experienced other spirits in themselves and over 90 percent of us believe in and at times converse with (pray to) god alters of one sort or another.5 Even in our day-to-day personal reactions, we more often switch into alters than we like to admit: "’Mom, don’t we have any cornflakes?’ Shawn asked….Immediately the Mean alter sprang into action. ‘Screw you, Shawn! Why are you so helpless? Find something else if we don’t have any goddamn cornflakes. I’m not your fucking slave!’"6

Contemporary societies with overall lower level childrearing regularly switch into their alters in possession states. Bourguignon found 90 percent of 488 societies reported institutionalized altered states of consciousness and spirit possessions7, with the remaining 10 percent reporting other forms of overt dissociation. One of the best-studied is Bali, where people live in "a world filled with gods and spirits…at the core of many activities of daily life, including ceremonies, rituals, dances, plays, and possession [by] demons, witchcraft or black magic, and leak (spirits). Evil spirits are often present."8 The journal Transcultural Psychiatry regularly reports on possession and other dissociative states in other cultures, from the "belief in spirit possession fundamental to Chinese religious systems" to the possession rituals in Indonesia.9

Simpler cultures report more hallucinations, soul journeys and possessions by animal spirits, while the more complex cultures report a greater variety of possession trance roles.10 Like multiple personalities in our society, altered states in other societies follow periodic cycles,11 as people experience growth panic due to individuation, then, as memories of early traumas threaten to surface, they switch into alters and restage their anger, guilt and punishment in religious rituals. Even today people in most societies individuate for six days and spend the seventh worshiping a punishing spirit and asking for forgiveness for the hubris/chutzbah of the previous week.

The psychology of alter formation and the acting-out of alter rituals has been well studied recently by clinicians. Whether experienced as inside or outside oneself, alters are actually inner voices or hallucinations that are subnetworks of the brain, centering more in the amygdalan network than the hippocampal,12 with their own organized personalities and even unique brain-scan configurations as the person switches personalities.13 All spirits, gods, demons, shamans, priests and political leaders are alter containers, projections of these inner alters; they derive their traits from the early traumas, not merely from "cultural transmission of beliefs." Dissociative personalities usually sense at some level that their spirits derive from their parents. As Donne put it, a separate part of ourselves—what he terms an "invisible corner" of us—derives from our past (Father Adam and Mother Eve) and contains the "poison that corrupts us."14

People in the past used to switch into their alters regularly, hearing voices, having waking nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing loss of time, periods of unreality and deadness, hallucinating persecutors, feeling unalterably dirty, sinful and hopeless, and acting out self-injurious episodes. All of these are evidence of dissociative identity disorders that resulted from the routine abusive childrearing practices of the past. One can view daily encounters with alters in such studies as those of the anthropologists Richard and Eva Blum on rural Greek communities, where people today—as in ancient Greece—regularly switch into alternate states and either are possessed by or encounter outside themselves devouring demons and bloodthirsty maternal monsters as they go about their daily business.15


Alters always contain traces of the early abusive situation, so if one knows the typical kinds of traumatic childrearing practices of an age, one can use these to decode the shared alters of that age. Goodwin’s studies of demon possesions in the sixteenth century are particularly revealing, demonstrating how the demons of Jeanne Fery were both "internalized abusers" and "keepers of the secret" of her early sexual and physical abuse.16

Whether the dissociated personalities are Perpetrator or Victim Alters, the original family situation is usually decipherable. Demons particularly get into you, say religious authorities, when mothers are mad at you for enjoying yourself: "Say a child is taking a nice hot shower, he is relaxed, enjoying himself. Suppose his mother yells at him to hurry up and get out, that’s forbidden….The child can get scared and the demon will get hold of him."17 In Mesopotamia, each person was said to have a "personal god…the image of the parent—divine father or mother" inside them, with a relationship "of master and slave," and these contributed to making their worlds filled with "demons, evil gods and evil spirits."18

The gods of every land were recognized as acting just like parents, often punishing people like noisy children, as when Enlil sent the Babylonian flood to wipe out mankind because they were "making too much noise down there so she could not sleep"19 or as when the Aztec lords of the underworld sacrificed the Aztec ball players because they were "too noisy."20 Hell in Christian literature was often compared to living with "an angry and furious woman."21 Possession began early in life; in the Acts of Thomas, God himself advised Christians "to avoid having children [since] the majority of children [are] possessed by demons."22 Witches were often transparently grandmothers or other women of the gynarchy (riding the grandmother’s broomstick) or prone to murder children (like real mothers killing their newborn) or "dance stark naked in the night" and seduce children (like mothers who slept with their children while both were naked and while the mother masturbated them).23 Every witch, ghost and religious figure carried their family origin in each of their features.

God, says Julian of Eclanum, is "the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who sends tiny babies to eternal flames."24 The pictures of Hell regularly depict tormented souls as child-sized, and their tortures are the routine tortures infants endured in the past; being in Hell meant "unbearable thirst, the punishment of hunger, of stench, of horror, of fear, of want, of darkness, the cruelty of tortures, punishment without end…"25 The tight swaddling bands were represented in Hell as "cruel fetters" with "their arms stretched down to the feet," and the feces that the infants were left in was shown in Hell as "being in a sewer" and as being "covered in the feces of their own obscenity," with Hell having "a stench worse than anything in this world."26

One can find Terrifying Mommy alters behind every Devil; even the Greek word for devil, diabolos, means "accuser." God, says Gregory, is the "Avenger," and he compares God’s treatment of man with that of a mother who "beats her child one moment as if she never loved him and the next moment loves him as if she had never beaten him."27 Although gods are often male, this usually only represents a defensive clinging to a Father to avoid worse fears of maternal abandonment and torture.28

A cross-cultural study of The Parental Figures and the Representation of God found that religious people cling to their mothers far more and actually see God with more maternal attributes than paternal.29 Demons in the past were even portrayed as wetnurses; the Dragon of Delphi, for instance, was the wetnurse of Typhaon, Hera’s child.30 The victims of gods and demons alike are regularly depicted as "innocent," "like an innocent child." When Job complains to Yahweh, "I am innocent," he admits this makes no difference because Yahweh "destroys innocent and guilty alike."

Sinners were born sinful and deserved punishment simply because they tried to be independent. The Devil, said Gerson, "sends happy thoughts" to you of "undertaking mighty works," you forget about God’s [Mommy’s] needs, you "relax," and you become a sinner.31 You must love God [Mommy], said Meister Eckart, "for nothing." You live, said Thomas à Kempis, only "to make yourself a more fit vessel for God’s [Mommy’s] purposes."32 All religions agreed on one thing: "To assert one’s self, to succeed, to enjoy, even to exist, is to dispossess the Father [Mother], to kill Him [Her]."33

Switching into alters began in early childhood. Children were often pictured as possessed, and historians of witchcraft often comment on "the sudden emergence, in a docile and amenable child, of a personality which raves, screams, roars with laughter, utters dreadful blasphemies [which] seems like the invasion of an alien being."34 Children, so close in time to their traumas, could remember what it felt like to be a fetus suffering because their Poisonous Placenta didn’t provide it with fresh, oxygenated blood, so they could identify with a suffering Christ on a placental cross and could understand priests when they said they deserved to be thrown into the "suffocations" of Hell [womb] and be tortured by "fire coursing swiftly through their veins, bubbling through their arteries, boiling like liquid lead."35 Common childrearing practices—like "roasting" infants in an oven to cure them of evil eye—were remembered in the many burning visions of Hell:

Let us always keep before our mind’s eye an overheated and glowing stove and inside a naked man supine, who will never be released from such pain. How lost he appears to us! Just imagine how he is writhing in the stove, how he screams, cries, lives, what dread he suffers, what sufferings pierce him, particularly when he realizes his unbearable pain will never end!36
Demons were sometimes experienced as "creeping things," like children, who "dance, laugh, whistle, caper, fart, and prance." More often demons were like parents, "leaping on his back, beating him and whipping him and leaving him unconscious on the ground."37 Demons and devils almost always contain traces of childhood rape, the Devil being, as one Colonial American woman who had intercourse with the Devil confessed, "a thing all over hairy, all the face hairy [pubic hair], and a long nose [penis]."38

As one study of medieval rape puts it: "The main thing medieval demons and monsters do is rape virgins."39 When hundreds of children at a time report being forced to copulate with the Devil,40 one need not believe in demons to see the earlier reality of the rape reports. Witnesses to rape confessions often report that the girls speak in "two voices, one her normal voice, the other ‘strange, coarse, unnatural, heavy, masculine.’"41 Obviously the deeper alter voice carries the memory of the original rapist, as it so often does in contemporary rape victims.

Demons during the Middle Ages were always assaulting people as incubi and succubi that sexually assault people in their beds, restaging childhood family bed rapes.42 Some female mystics even hallucinated that Christ appeared before them and had intercourse with them.43 Even the Holy Ghost contains a trace of rape, since the Virgin Mary was impregnated by God with it (Yahweh in Hebrew deriving from the Sumerian word for "sperm.")44 Religious ritual often restages the rape scene openly:

The temple in the Near East was the womb. It was divided into three parts; the Porch, representing the lower end of the vagina up to the hymen, or Veil; the Hall, or vagina itself; and the inner sanctum, or Holy of Holies, the uterus. The priest, dressed as a penis, anointed with various saps and resins as representing the divine semen, enters through the doors of the Porch, the "labia" of the womb, past the Veil or "hymen" and so into the Hall.45


In religions and politics, people turn to idealized authorities to avoid the risk of depending on themselves and to restage the painful feelings of abandonment by parents that they had when they tried to individuate as children. Religions restage traumatic events encapsulated in dangerous alters. This is why the word "sacred" (sacer) everywhere designates "poison," "dangerous," "taboo,"46 because the sacred is where we store our most poisonous, dangerous early memories.

Gods, demons and spirits are not just containers for haphazard projections; they are highly organized and endurable, and so must first exist as durable, organized subselves in individual brains. It is through religious questions about God that people in the past asked their most important questions about Mommy: Why does she hate me, why did she tie me up, leave me abandoned in my feces, let me starve, why did she beat me, why did she strangle my baby sister, what does she want from me, what did I do wrong to deserve such torture?

Because preverbal infants imagine they store their painful memories in various body parts, alters that carry early traumas are often pictured as inhabiting internal organs: hearts, brains, the gall bladder, even intestines. Jeffrey Dahmer used to dismember bodies, he said, because he "wanted to see what someone looked like inside," searching for alters in the organs of the corpses he decapitated, draped on altars and then—like Osiris—tried to reassemble, as though he were reassembling his own dissociated body part alters.47 He then ate some of the body parts, like Aztecs eating the heart of their sacrificed victims, reinternalizing the projected alters that were "full of vital force."

Christian saints hallucinated both Christ and devils inhabiting their hearts, and even talked to them regularly.48 Egyptians said their double, their ka, inhabited their hearts, and had spells entreating the heart to "rise not up as a witness against me."49 Aztecs believed there were three animistic souls, one in the head, one in the liver and one in the heart, and they cut each of these organs out of victims in their sacrificial rituals.50 To this day, children’s hearts are reported cut out and thrown into the sea in Chile as sacrifices to spirits, as the child begs, "Just let me live, Grandfather."51

Tribal people had such primitive childrearing that they were constantly involved with the alters inhabiting their organs. "The first thing a shaman has to do when he has called up his helping spirits is to withdraw the soul from his pupil’s eyes, brain and entrails," purifying and liberating them.52 Shamans "cured" others of "soul loss" by sucking out their poisonous organ alters through their skin.53 Early religions are mainly concerned with purifying and acting out the feelings of organ alters, usually in rituals that use animal spirit alters, attacking, dismembering and rebirthing initiates. Animal alters reveal their infantile origins in that they are projected into beings that crawl and are not verbal, like infants.

Thus all animal sacrifices are infantile alter sacrifices, even when we today go hunting. The infantile origin of animal alters is clearly revealed in the Ainu bear sacrifice, where a black bear cub is actually suckled by the mothers before being sacrificed.54 Shamans around the world hallucinate that they remove all their internal organs and replace them with "incorruptible" organs, often pressing quartz crystals into their body to accomplish this.55 Egyptians not only separately mummified their internal organs, addressing their ka as "my heart, my mother,"56 they also mummified animals, reptiles, birds and fishes that were their animal alters.57 As we saw in Chapter 3, they even mummified the Royal Placenta and worshiped it, like the Baganda did until recently, placing it on an actual throne and addressing it as "King."58 Christians, too, used to collect body parts as relics, worshiping the heart, pieces of skull, limb bones or fingers of saints dug up from their graves.59

Animal Perpetrator Alters were frequently the central gods of early religions, such as when Yahweh was represented with serpent legs or when Egyptian gods were shown as various devouring animals.60 That gods are usually perpetrators restaging early physical abuse is the answer to Freud’s question: "Why does religion seem to need violence?"61 When violence against children disappears, religious and political violence will disappear. Religions and politics as we know them will no doubt disappear also. Religions work by constructing sacred spaces that contain triggers for switching into trances in order to access people’s alters and obtain some relief from their tortures.

Looking out a Rose Window of a cathedral triggers nothing so much as fetal memories of seeing light through your mother’s abdomen. The entrainment of personal alters into a shared personal experience can be seen today most clearly in groups like the Shakers, where adherents experience dissociation states; get together in churches full of pictures of Christ as a Victim Alter to trigger their childhood memories of being victimized; profess their total obedience to Elders in order to trigger the obedience demanded by their parents; and have a "mother matron" wash their hands or face, also to parallel the early childhood state. Then the church leader, the "Pointer," carries out the Perpetrator Alter role by punishing one of the Shakers: "With a temper that flares suddenly, he takes a wide leather strap and pounds the table, altar, or Bible with the edge of it…then wields it against a woman [who] became dissociated as he held her hands and swung her arms from side to side…remarking, ‘Satan, he wait for you!’ He proceeded to strike the woman’s open palms with his strap." The Pointer becomes the instrument of the Holy Ghost, saying: "It is the Holy Spirit who gives punishment to you," and, while the culprit is still in a possession trance, lashes her as she was lashed as a child, telling her she was now forgiven for being sinful.62

The neurobiology of "God experiences" is well understood. They are actually temporal lobe seizures, similar to the seizures of epileptics, explaining why so many mystics experienced clear epileptic seizures. These "kindling" seizures—which have been correlated with previous serious child abuse—begin in the hippocampus and spread to the amygdalan network, transforming previous painful anoxic depressive rage feelings into what Mandell calls "ecstatic joyful rage," with a disappearance of self boundaries so that the person is suddenly overcome with feelings of unity and love.63 The neurobiology of "God in the brain" is similar to the effects of drugs like cocaine and the hallucinagens, "inducing an acute loss of serotonergic regulation of temporal lobe limbic structures and releasing the affectual and cognitive processes characteristic of religious ecstasy and conversion."64

Persinger describes "the release of the brain’s own opiates that can cause a narcotic high" during these God-merger experiences, producing "with a single burst in the temporal lobe, a personal conviction of truth and a sense of self-selection [that] shames any known therapy."65 As Otto puts it, the mysterium tremendum of religious ecstasy "bursts in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions and leads to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport and to ecstasy…wild and demonic…and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering."66 Saint Theresa tells how it felt to experience this painful ecstasy in her organ alters: "An angel pierced its spear several times through my heart, so that it penetrated to my bowels, which were extracted when the spear was withdrawn, leaving me all aflame with an immense love for God. The pain was so great that I had to groan, but the sweetness that came with this violent pain was such that I could not wish to be free of it."67

Religions devise rituals to exteriorize alters and collude with others in the delusion that internal alters really exist outside oneself, providing some group relief from feeling unlovable by sharing myths like "Christ died for your sins" and asking for forgiveness in hopes that God, the Omnipotent Mommy Alter, will finally love them. Each step of the shaman’s or priest’s ritual can be decoded to reveal its infantile origin: "In every ritual, we must do what the gods [parents] did in the beginning,"68 The most severely abused children today who become multiple personalities (Dissociated Identity Disorders) frequently join one of the many fundamentalist religious cults in order to decrease the pains of their dissociation.

Religions provide alter fetishes—shaman’s rattles, Dionysian phallic replicas, suffering Christ statues—that contain the traumas of the alters and allow the worshiper to act out the guilt and punishment they demand. Most gods began as fetishes, "spirits embodied in material objects,"70 and demon fetish figurines were plentiful in antiquity, being made to be ritually destroyed or thrown into the river or buried in deserted places to punish the Victim Alters that were projected into them.71 These alter fetishes were believed to have "accumulated power so intense and dangerous" that they had to be "killed" in order to release their force.72

All the statues and standards worshiped by the Egyptian and Mesopotamians were so concretely alternate personalities that they were regularly fed and spoken to, "in order to sustain the power with which they were charged."73 Most early Sacred Kings only remained kings as long as they had possession of their fetish alters, the Royal Crown—symbol of the maternal vagina—and the throne—symbol of the maternal chair.74 As will be discussed below, the fantasy of the omnipotent Terrifying Mommy always lies behind even masculine gods and demons, both in religious and political group-fantasies.

Article Citations

This article is Part I of Chapter 9 of deMause's new book The Emotional Life of Nations (New York: OtherPress, 2002). For more by deMause, see his website,

Go to Part II of Lloyd deMause's The Evolution of Psyche and Society

Read Dr. James C. Duffy's article about why deMause's findings are believable and why resistance persists despite the overwhelming evidence he presents.

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